by John Barth
Putnam’s, 772 pp., $16.95
Sometimes a novel of a markedly eccentric character drags with it an image of its ideal reader. Letters, an immense work of perverse ingenuity, might have been designed on order for that little band of academic scholar-critics, now mostly middle-aged, who, having locked themselves into a room with Pound’s Cantos and Finnegans Wake, glare balefully through barred windows at the rest of the literary scene. Occasionally they will unbolt the door just long enough to allow one of the later, lesser models to be installed—the novels of Beckett, an Ada, say, or Gravity’s Rainbow. Apart from these bristling few (together with a handful of more or less coerced, more or less conscientious reviewers) it is hard to imagine what readers Letters, in its entirety, will find.
Almost certainly they will not include today’s bright undergraduates, who, if they read at all, apparently do so by strobe-light; and almost certainly not your reasonably literate General Reader (wherever he lurks), who is likely to conclude that while life is indeed short, art can sometimes seem intolerably long. But length and difficulty and even tedium are no necessary bars to greatness. Letters has already been hailed as a work of genius. Will those who decline the challenge of its nearly eight hundred pages have denied themselves an extraordinary literary experience? The answer to that is yes. Whether or not the experience will be judged sufficiently rewarding for the effort involved is more doubtful.
Letters—rather like the haywire (or bees’ wax) computers, LILYVAC I and LILYVAC II, which serve as a major scrambling device within the novel—is itself an amazing construction of glittering parts and crazed circuitry. As any reader of reviews must know by now, it has been assembled as an epistolary novel, a freaky variation of the old Richardsonian model, its correspondents being “seven fictitious drolls and dreamers” who, with a single important exception, derive from Barth’s earlier fiction. One of these, the computer-maniac and Bonapartist pretender Jerome Bonaparte Bray, not only appears briefly in the “Bellerophoniad” section of Chimera (1972) but accompanies his initial letter with two “enclosures” that are lifted verbatim from that novella; his connections go back to Giles Goat-Boy (1966) as well.
Another correspondent is Ambrose Mensch, an expansion of the pre-adolescent Ambrose who figures in several sections of Lost in the Funhouse (1968); he is to some degree an authorial alterego, a failed (or blocked) avant-garde novelist who also calls himself Arthur Morton King. A.B. Cook IV and A.B. Cook VI both descend from the Cookes, Burlingames, and Castines (Casteenes) of The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and continue the story of that shape-shifting dynasty from the 1750s onward. Then there is Jacob Horner, taken up years after the conclusion of The End of the Road (1958) and now revealed to be as mad as they come. The remaining three are Todd Andrews, the lawyer—now sixty-nine—who narrates The Floating Opera (1956); Lady Amherst, who is the entirely …